The USA is a big place. Really big. Within the wide-open spaces of the contiguous United States, as well as Alaska and the far-flung islands of Hawaii, there’s just about every climate and ecosystem you can imagine; from temperate rainforests and pine-clad mountains to deserts and scrublands.
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Naturally, there are a lot of national parks dedicated to preserving the best that nature has to offer in the USA. Otherworldly sandstone monuments, multicolored hot springs that have to be seen to be believed, craggy coastlines, scorching deserts strewn with iconic cacti – it’s all here in the best national parks in America.
The aptly named Big Bend National Park in Texas is so-called because it’s set in a dramatic meander of the Rio Grande: on one side of the river is Texas, USA, but on the other side is Mexico. Almost the same size as Rhode Island, Big Bend is known for diversity and has loads to discover on its many trails.
The Chisos Basin is the most popular area of the park and features mountain views, but the Chihuahuan Desert – home to real-life roadrunners and coyotes – is really the place to escape into nature at this national park.
Saguaro is home to the classic southwest American cactus – their iconic shapes of the park’s namesake stand tall in this quite literally deserted area. Divided into East and West portions, the two halves of the park are separated by the city of Tucson.
Both portions of the national park offer an abundance of trails amid its desert landscapes. The Rincon Mountain District is the larger, eastern portion of the park and serves up adventurous horseback rides and camping opportunities. In the west, the Tucson Mountain District is spectacular, which means hiking – such as on Signal Hill – is well worth the effort.
A breathtaking national park, Shenandoah is full of an abundance of wildflowers in summer. In autumn, however, the trees burst into brilliant oranges and reds for some prime fall foliage. Situated 75 miles from Washington D.C., there are lengthy hiking trails to discover in this national park.
In fact, part of these trails make up around 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Hiking is certainly the order of the day here; the climb up to the peak of Old Rag Mountain, for example, is strenuous, but worth scrambling for the views. For those less interested in hiking, the Skyline Drive means stunning vistas from the comfort of your car.
Mesa Verde is the perfect spot for adventures among nature, and to understand more about mysterious, centuries-old cultures. This is the site where the ancient Puebloans once lived in their cliff dwellings (circa 1100 AD); where they went or why they left, nobody knows, but their houses built in precarious places can be seen to this day.
Because of the important history, walking off-trail is forbidden, as is entering the ancient dwellings without a ranger. Take the Mesa Top Road Circuit that loops around ten of the excavated pueblos, and you’ll be able to discover more about these fascinating old dwellings.
Death Valley National Park might sound like somewhere that’s quite hot and hellish, but there’s actually an abundance of nature to enjoy here. There are huge boulders seemingly lying around on a grand scale, canyons carved by gushing streams that slice through the land, sand dunes that actually ‘sing,’ volcanic craters that are long extinct, and soaring mountains to tackle – or view comfortably from afar.
True to its title – and the place that gives the park its name – it is nevertheless a scorching area: one of the hottest spots in the US. Dante’s View offers a panoramic vista across the southern portion of Death Valley Basin from atop the Black Mountains.
The only national park in Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is named after the eponymous lake; formed by a huge volcanic eruption around 7,700 years ago, it’s the deepest lake in the entire United States. The sparkling waters of this magnificent lake itself reflect the surrounding craggy mountain peaks in its mirror-like surface for a gorgeous effect and some inspiring photo opportunities.
There are over 90 miles of trails that criss-cross the park, but most of these are only be accessed in summer as snow covers trails for much of the year. Head up to higher ground to see the wildflowers in full bloom in summer as well as a breathtaking view across the landscape.
New England’s one and only national park, dating back to 1916, Acadia sits on the coast and boasts some dramatic views of this region’s storied shoreline. Acadia National Park is all about rewarding mountain hikes, strolls along the shore, beautiful bike rides, and drives that will induce oohs and ahhs.
There’s a surprisingly varied landscape to discover in this national park; from its dense forests and languid lakes to boulder-strewn beaches dotted with lonely lighthouses. There are also sandy beaches and islands, such as the famous Mount Desert Island, to explore here.
Canyonlands National Park is a truly otherworldly place. With a landscape more like something you would expect on Mars than Earth, the largest national park in Utah is all about its canyons. These snake around its ancient landscape, which is also punctuated by 1,000-foot-tall white cliffs above the Colorado and Green Rivers, as well as strange rock formations.
The park itself is divided into four sections by both those rivers forming a Y shape in this rocky, alien stretch of land. Island in the Sky – a vast mesa – sits in the middle, and is the busiest part of the park – for good reason; the views are incredible.
Home to the giant trees of the same name, Redwood National Park lies on the northwestern Pacific Coast in California. It’s home to some of the tallest trees in the world. There’s an enigmatic mix here of lush coastal scenery and lush prairielands.
The Sequoia sempervirens – scientific name for the redwood – are also some of the most ancient trees on the planet, with branches covered in moss and ferns. There are plenty of trails to enjoy walking through the vast forests, which make for good days out, but to really soak up what the park has to offer it boasts campgrounds and backcountry sites for overnight stays in this heavy-hitter of nature.
16. Grand Teton (Wyoming) Where to Stay
Grand Teton in the Rocky Mountains is a wild wilderness of 12 peaks sculpted throughout the ages by glaciers. This includes, of course, the Grand Teton itself, which stands at an impressive 13,775 feet above sea level.
The beautiful landscape here is just begging to be hiked. There are captivating canyons filled with fresh forests to explore, crystal alpine lakes to marvel at, and – at the right time of year – fragrant wildflowers which provide pops of color. This rugged land plays host to all manner of beasts, including elks, moose, and bears.
The fifth-highest peak in the United States, Mount Rainier itself is an icon of a mountain that can be seen throughout much of Washington state. Rainier is actually an active strato-volcano that last erupted as recently as 1854.
Close to the urban areas of Puget Sound, Mount Rainier National Park and its 26 glaciers is a hikers paradise, with fabulous hiking trails lacing the foothills, and carpets of flowers blooming in spring and summer. Many people attempt to climb to the snowy peak of Rainier, but it’s tough going; only half the adventurers who try go the whole way.
This national park is named after another species of the Sequoia family, the Sequoiadendron giganteum – colloquially known as the giant redwood. Drive-through trees and huge, ancient examples of the redwoods here characterize the park. In fact, it’s here that you will find General Sherman, a giant redwood that’s claimed to be the largest living tree on Earth.
There are also deep, 10,000-year-old caves that hide supersize stalactites. For a breathtaking vista of the Sierra Mountains, head to Eagle View.
Another of Utah’s national parks that is made up of Martian badlands, the sandstone landscape here is out of this world. There are a sublime selection of rock arches (around 2,000, in fact), striped pink and red buttes, as well as other strange and intricate rock formations.
Landscape Arch is actually one of the largest natural arches in the world, measuring in at 306 feet across. This is an easy access national park with a selection of short hikes to embark on, but possibly more popular are rock climbing and canyoning. The Fiery Furnace – a famous formation – blazes orange and red as the sun sets each day.
Glacier National Park boasts an outstanding natural world that has been, as you might expect from the name, carved and sculpted over thousands of years by glaciers. It’s a land of dramatic rocky outcrops, snow-topped peaks, raging waterfalls, and beautifully reflective lakes.
There are an impressive amount of hiking trails here – about 740 miles of them – that wind like arteries of adventure around the jaw-dropping landscape. This is also the place where grizzly bears roam in abundance in the dense mountain forests. Popular scenic drive Going-to-the-Sun Road is an excellent way to see the beauty of the national park without stepping foot out of your car.
One of the most spectacular slices of nature in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain National Park is awash with imposing granite mountains, aqua-colored alpine lakes, and meadows that burst into life come summer. It’s the perfect place for adventures amidst nature, with a selection of trails where you can find peace, quiet and serenity.
The wilderness of the national park makes the ideal host for many wild animals too, like elk, moose, and black bear. Bear Lake – one of ten lakes in the park – is a famous scenic spot for visitors, where you can soak up views of the glacial valleys and mountaintops.
A gigantic area of land that’s as famous as Florida itself, the Everglades National Park is home to vast tracts of swamp, and the ubiquitous alligators that make the Everglades what they are. You can take a kayak out and explore the mangrove waterways for yourself, slicing across the silent waters of the myriad lakes, or you could opt for a quintessential airboat tour of the swamp.
The Anhinga Trail is where you can spot cold-blooded ‘gators basking in the sun, and the eponymous anhinga lying in wait for their prey; you can even head out on a nocturnal walk with a ranger.
Bryce Canyon National Park is famous for its rock formations. Known as hoodoos, these spire-like sandstone rocks jut into the sky for a supremely interesting landscape. It’s been sculpted over time by freeze-thaw erosion that has morphed the soft sandstone into the marvelous landscape it is today.
There are various trails, such as the Rim Trail, weaving through the rocks. Bryce Point is the perfect spot for views out over the so-called Silent City, with the vista below made up of walls of rock and hoodoos looking like an ancient ghost city – or somewhere from another time and place altogether.
Set on Hawaii Island – or the Big Island, as it’s more commonly known – Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park encompasses Mauna Loa. This massive volcano has a summit that, surprisingly, for these Pacific Islands, is sometimes covered in snow. The national park also features volcanic coasts made from cooled lava flows, rich rainforests, magnificently green meadows in the mountains, and geological formations such as lava tubes.
Kilauea – a shield volcano in the national park – has erupted as recently as 2018; the last eruption quite literally changed the shape of the park itself – an insight into the power of nature. The park remains open, but some areas are understandably closed.
Located 25 miles from a former ranch town, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a network of caverns, and is in equal parts an eerie and incredible sight to behold. The main chamber of the cave itself – called the Big Room – is impressive, to say the least: to access it, you can choose to take an ear-popping elevator that runs the equivalent to the entire height of the Empire State Building. Or you can take a snaking pathway into the subterranean abyss below. The Big Room is a cathedral-like opening complete with a trail and the largest stalagmite in the world.
This national park is a world of beautiful nature. Think verdant forests as far as the eye can see, glistening waterfalls, and undulating mountain peaks. The forests themselves come alive in springtime, with a rainbow of wildflowers blazing between the trees. Autumn brings the famous fall foliage for a sea of auburn, and winter is all about snow.
Dubbed ‘the Smokies’ because of the misty mountaintops, exploring this national park is like stepping into the past; there are still remote mountain communities who call this region home. It’s a great spot to truly unwind and leave the modern world behind.
5. Denali (Alaska) Where to Stay
Denali National Park is the monumental tract of land that makes up Alaska’s most famous national park. The centerpiece, by a long stretch, is Denali. Formerly known as Mount McKinley, this towering mountain is the tallest in North America at 6,190 meters above sea level.
It’s truly a sight to behold, as its snowy tip seems to actually pierce the sky. This primeval land is primed for exploration. Snowy boreal forests, desolate tundra, jagged mountains, and lakes all play host to caribou, moose, grizzly bears, and wolves. For those seeking true wilderness, this might just be the place.
4. Zion (Utah) Where to Stay
Utah’s splendid national parks don’t get better than Zion. The red and white cliffs and buttes that make up Zion Canyon slice into the air; they’re edged by greenery, making for a colorful place to soak up this amazing wonder of nature.
And there are some great ways to get right into the thick of things. The Narrows, for example, is a 16-mile adventure through the canyon and along the Virgin River at the base of it; elsewhere, there’s the Big Springs, a hike that weaves along the eponymous fern-edged spring itself.
This famous national park is a popular place to explore some of California’s best nature. There are giant sequoias that tower into the air at Mariposa Grove; there’s the glorious green of the Yosemite Valley with its granite walls; and there’s the spectacular Vernal Fall – an iconic sight of the Merced River falling 317 feet to the pool below.
Owing to its popularity, Yosemite National Park welcomes a whopping four million visitors annually, but thankfully, there’s space for everyone amid the sweeping peaks of Half Dome and the gleaming lakes.
Renowned the world over, the Grand Canyon needs no introduction. One of the largest canyon in the world really has to be seen to be properly appreciated. Whether you visit the North, South, East or West Rim areas, it’s always a giant sculpture of light and shadow that barrels its way across an awesome landscape.
Around the national park that encompasses it there are a whole host of trails and viewpoints; Cape Royal on the North Rim is a top vista of many major parts of the Grand Canyon. You can even reach down to the canyon floor, over a mile down in some places, via steep, meandering trails.
The granddaddy of American national parks, Yellowstone is the oldest in the United States (and the world), having been founded in 1872. When it was first discovered, stories of the magnificence of the area were passed off as lies and tall tales.
You can see why: erupting geysers here belch steam and water, such as the clockwork Old Faithful. There are boiling hot springs, like the Grand Prismatic Spring; thanks to differing temperatures and minerals as the waters spread out, this is a veritable rainbow of unbelievable colors. There’s even the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – a natural wonder in granite. This place is a true icon of must-see nature.